Archive for category LIFE LESSONS

How Actively Do You Relax?

I relax by writing, watching TV, surfing the internet, reading a book, looking at the grass grow. This morning I played 1 1/4 hours of squash games, lost every one, and am exhausted. I need to “relax.”

The other night I met a man who said he can only relax by being active. He said that he had hunted EVERY single Saturday for a solid year. Pheasants, quail, chukars, deer. If he couldn’t hunt near his home up north, he “hopped” a plane and went to Georgia or South Carolina. On Fridays or Sundays, he takes a golf lesson in the morning, plays 18 holes, then goes home and has a trainer give him a shooting lesson, and finally rounds out the afternoon by shooting 500 clay pigeons in his back yard. Probably just before going to a black tie dinner party.

How does a seemingly normal human being do all that activity?

But I remembered a lawyer I once hired who invited my family to his weekend house in Massachusetts. He was up by 5:30 am rowing his shell on a lake, then played two hours of tennis. As soon as we arrived around noon, we all ate lunch and went for a hike up a mountain. Back at the house, we were ushered onto a a speedboat for a spin around the lake. He said this was a normal day. Rowing is so beautiful when the mist is on the water. Gets you ready for the day.

But any one of these activities would have been enough activity for me. I was going crazy just talking, eating and hiking. I’d already driven a couple of hours to get there. The boat tour was fun, but way too much input for me.

Yesterday I heard from a friend that these guys may have ADD, which is attention deficit disorder or ADHD, which is attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Some part of their brains need to be constantly stimulated to feel ok or calm or relaxed. Too much stimulation wears me out. I need to relax. Too little stimulation makes ADD brains go crazy. They need MORE activity to feel relaxed.

I knew that ADD/ADHD kids are given ritalin to relax them. I never knew before yesterday that the drug is a stimulant and helps decrease one’s need for activity and movement.

Whether the two adults I referenced have any disorder or not, they certainly have higher energy than I do or will ever have. The challenge is to discover what you need, what you like and figure out how to have them both.

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TJ Faces Two Big Challenges

TJ (left) with friends—3/24/2012

Back on March 17th, I wrote about how I hurt my knee and was scared that I might no longer be able to play tennis…and then was ashamed that with all the sickness and sadness in the world, I had no right to feel sorry for myself. Here is a poignant and powerful comment from a reader named TJ. She has really set a high athletic challenge for herself: to run a marathon (26 miles) although the most she has ever run non-stop in her life is “just” eight miles! She also has another challenge involving her health and appearance, and has an unbelievably positive and adaptive attitude. She reminds me how in the past, as my hair thinned out, my bald spot became larger, and I watched a relative lose all her hair during cancer treatments, I would rationalize that “it’s better to be bald than dead.”

This post resonated with me, so I felt the need to comment. These are just some thoughts, so forgive me if the sentiment’s a little scattered.

This past December I entered the lottery for the New York City marathon for the fourth time in my life, and was admitted. FINALLY I’m getting the chance to live out one of my lifelong dreams of running 26.2 miles in the city in which I’ve learned some of my most important life lessons. To have the opportunity to meet this challenge head on, means the whole world to me, and every day that I go running, I just picture all of my Rocky Balboa-esque workouts culminating in that final moment when my mind has conquered matter, and I’m dashing across the finish line.

Another challenge presented itself this past December too—I discovered I have an auto-immune disorder called alopecia areta that causes my hair to fall out in patches sporadically. While otherwise perfectly healthy, I have absolutely no control over what my hair will look like the next day, and eventually, if my body doesn’t respond to treatment (cortisone injections in my scalp once a month), I could end up totally bald.

You can imagine that for a woman, not having any control over how I’m going to look is incredibly frustrating, and it’s made me consider how drastically others’ perceptions of me could shift in the next year or so. But surprisingly (even to me), I’m not that upset. I’ve had a lot of time since December to reflect on what my condition really is in the grand scheme of things. I’m not dying. Being bald wouldn’t change who I am fundamentally. There are so many worse things that can happen to a person. I have friends who are battling cancer, mourning the losses of their parents, and learning how to live their life again with only one leg. So whenever I start to feel sorry for myself for a little hair falling out, I remember that for now, I can still go for a run. Who knows? Maybe if I end up totally bald, the lack of extra wind resistance will shave a couple minutes off my marathon time? : )

she is losing patches of hair

It’s tough not being able to do something you’ve been able to your whole life. It’s tough not having control while your body changes. I know playing tennis and putting your hair up are in two totally different ballparks, but I think I can empathize with the sentiment. We’re all constantly on a journey to achieve and to perfect ourselves despite the wear and tear that comes with living. But maybe if you stay off of your knee for a while, you’ll have the opportunity to pull something else out of yourself you didn’t know was there. Maybe you’re a world class chess player? Maybe you’ll spend more time rowing and find that it’s something you love?

We are each a project that’s always evolving and re-growing. I could lose all of my hair. I could sprain my ankle and not even make it to the marathon (knock on wood). But until that happens, I’m relishing in shampooing my hair every morning and beaming with every step I take in the evening because you’re right—as long as we’re alive, it’s not enough to just watch the ocean from the beach. You don’t get a dress rehearsal, so you have to enjoy what you’ve got while you’ve got it and push for everything you want in this life. If you love tennis, play tennis until you can’t play tennis anymore, and then when you can’t, you’ll find a new passion within yourself and be a stronger person for it.

When I’m running, I spend a lot of time thinking about the people and ideas that have made me strong enough to conquer a marathon, and I want to put them all on the t-shirt I wear that day in some way to remind myself of who I really am. You can be sure that I’ll have a shout out to irasabs.com somewhere on that shirt. Thank you for always being an inspiration.

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Sports Lessons Can Be Life Lessons

I mentioned yesterday that I was getting a lot better at tennis and squash, and much of that improvement was attributed to pointers from knowledgeable coaches and the advice that “practice DOESN’T make perfect,” but “PERFECT” practice is what is needed for better performance.

What seems applicable in these thoughts to life off the courts is that you can’t get things “right” the first time. It’s a lot of trial and error, identifying “perfect” practice and then practicing. There is the need to risk failure, to make mistakes, to get up off the mat when you fall and do it again. One needs to read books and talk to others who have succeeded, whether it is creating good relationships, career changes, making money, relocating where you live.

Life is full of challenges. Just like athletics. Unfortunately life has to be lived, whereas no one has to play sports. We all know you can learn about people by watching them play sports, and you can learn about life by playing any sport. The biggest problem is that there are no classes for how to live your life. And people expect you to know what you are doing and act like you know, when we are actually very uninformed. So most of us bluff others and also ourselves. A big mistake. Life is a lifelong learning process. We are all in it together. No one is really fooling us if they suggest that they have all the answers. But experience is worth everything, and practice—that is “perfect” practice—makes us better at it. So let’s keep on learning and practicing and enjoying the progress.

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The Joy Of Improving At Sport

Today I was a case history twice on how to improve at sport. Maybe there is a message for non-athletic activities as well.

I played my best tennis ever for two hours in the morning, using the new techniques I’d learned from local coach Rob Ober, who’d roomed with Andre Agassi at their tennis camp. The open stance and serve pointers he gave me took a couple of weeks to adjust to, but I am now swinging and serving well enough to be more competitive with some strong players in the area. My ground strokes have more power and sometimes have top spin.

In the afternoon I played my best squash ever for an hour and a half and won eight games out of 12 against a player who beat me all five games the last time we played months ago. I was using the new swing, serve return placement and body position that I’d learned from local coach Bjorn Runquist, who had wisely taught me that “Practice does not make perfect, but PERFECT practice is what makes perfect.” A major distinction.

My tennis partner in the morning was a 4.0 player who has seen me play at least three or four times with months or years between viewings. When I first faced Phil Farmer four years ago, I wasn’t even at the level of the 75-93-year-olds with 50-75 years of experience I was playing with. I could out run the older guys, but they could place every shot so accurately that if the ball came near them, they earned a point. Drops and lobs were a key part of their strategy. At the end of our games back then, Phil gave me some wise advice that I really appreciated him mentioning. He said it seemed that I hadn’t identified his weaker side, forehand or backhand, and that my game would improve if I noticed things like that and adapted my game to each player. I was grateful for his suggestion.

A couple of years later, Phil saw me at his club, where I was a guest, and he commented that my game had improved. A real compliment. In the last year, I have been learning about doubles strategy from Joe Marshall and the books he and Rob Ober recommended. So today Phil praised my game a couple of times, noting that I was playing “good smart tennis.” My volleying at the net was also pretty good.

It’s very gratifying to work at something and make progress. To challenge yourself to grow or improve at a skill and then realize that objective. For now I just want to keep getting better. There is no end goal, like winning tournaments or becoming the best in the country or the county. I just want to play with stronger and more experienced players and be invited back into their games. I am enjoying the journey and not focused on any final destination.

I remember a friend telling me sadly that he had stopped playing tennis regularly, because so much activity had injured his body, and now his level of play was only going down, rather than up. It was too upsetting. But I am still on the upside of the curve, aiming for the highest point I can at this age.

Somewhere in the future, I will reach my peak performance, my level will start to flatten out or decline, and I will be back playing mostly with the 75-90-year-olds. I hope that happens, when I am almost 90 myself. I may have wistful moments about how good I was in my early 70’s, but at least I will still be alive, playing, enjoying some cardio, and having the thrill of making each winning sweet-spot-shot.

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I Have Reached Another Birthday

Ira after 1000 non-stop crunches—4/5/2012

Today I am 71 years old and have been writing on this web site for exactly three years. Although the age number sounds ancient—and I am definitely a little scared to be this old—I am thrilled beyond anything you can imagine that I have survived at all for one more year. And I am still enjoying good health. I remain grateful for so many parts of my life, and I am constantly reminded by less fortunate friends—and strangers read about and seen in media—how really crappy life CAN be and actually IS for vast numbers of humans. Of course I have setbacks and disappointments, struggles, anxieties and fears. But they are in the past, and as much as possible, I keep on looking forward.

The Buddhists say Life is Suffering. M.Scott Peck (who lived and worked just a few miles from me) says in his book, The Road Less Traveled (10 million sold), that Life is difficult. It is filled with problems and pain. It takes discipline to deal with them. It is only because of the problems that we grow mentally and physically. Many people attempt to avoid problems and suffering instead of dealing with them.

Somehow I have been able to wend my way through and around many of my problems. It’s not clear to me how or why I achieved this. I attacked them obliquely or confronted others head on. But I credit much of the progress to chance, luck and good genes. All around me are contemporaries who have had serious illnesses, injured their limbs or were born with organs that let them down. Some of these incidents might have been prevented if they’d eaten less or exercised more or paid a bit more attention. But a few are sick, because their military service resulted in exposure to toxic chemicals. Maybe, like my father, they looked left instead of right and were hit by a car…or like a friend who looked straight ahead and broke legs, when he fell through a hole in a roof. Others went on vacations to remote places and came back with lifelong diseases. Life can be so cruel.

When I was working full-time, I almost never exercised. I just couldn’t make time for it. It’s only now that I am semi-retired, and not forced to work eight-plus hours every day, that I finally have the psychological strength and time to exercise and play sports. Many friends have been enjoying the gym and sports their whole lives. They had to do this. It was not a choice. It is who they are. And when you exert yourself like that, you will have injuries, soreness, and wear out your body. So by age 71 or younger, they are no longer able to participate.

Fortunately, my genes, my attitude, my diet and now my physical activities have brought me to this wonderful, but totally ridiculous, place, where I care about six-packs, tennis swings and low cholesterol. I want to be fully alive, and good health is the highest priority. I have been sick and confined to hospitals. Without health, you just can’t partake in many of life’s activities. If these words help guide you to a fuller, lengthier and satisfied life, I would love to hear about it. I don’t know how I became who I am. But here I am, making the most of a blessed journey.

I hope you enjoyed this day, my birth day. I just learned that April 5th is also the birthday of Colin Powell, Booker T. Washington, Thomas Hobbes Gregory Peck, Bette Davis, Spencer Tracy and Melvyn Douglas.

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Starting New Habits Is Easier Than Breaking Old Habits

On March 31, I wrote about the difficulty of changing bad habits. And how I read that it is better to create a totally new habit, which leads to new neural paths and doesn’t demand the near impossible re-routing of an existing muscle-memory routine.

So it was perfect that after months of frustration, during which I saw that my serve and ground strokes were not as powerful as many of the men I was playing with, I was prepared to give up what I had been doing and try something—ANYTHING—new. Here is how I learned about, and have begun using, a totally different way to play tennis that is working beyond my wildest dreams.

Rob Ober, a top tennis coach I know at the Kent School in Kent CT, asked me for the first time if I wanted to hit with him, to help him get back in shape for the beginning of his season. I said yes enthusiastically.

(I have known Rob for six years, when he coached my daughter on the varsity team. But when I asked him to give me lessons, he directed me to his #1 player. However he is now giving lessons and can be reached via email: obergallery@yahoo.com.)

We stopped after an hour, and Rob made some comments about my swings and stance: “You should keep your feet planted and use an open stance. Your chest should face the net on a forehand. You do pivot 90 degrees on a backhand, but bring the racket head back quicker by holding the throat of the racket with your left hand. And when your ball goes into the net, you know you are lurching forward, which is a mistake.”

Aha! I thought. I had originally learned the classic way to hit, by turning my body perpendicular to the net and raising my racket before swinging. I had no effective backhand. Then I was introduced by Frank Adams (a coach for 50 years) to a very unconventional way to swing that had me turning slightly away from the net and dropping the racket. There was no need to bend my knees, and that style gave me such an improved backhand, that I embraced it immediately. But I saw after a couple of years that both of my swings lacked power. Frank can execute it, but I didn’t generate the power he and others with more conventional swings did.

Now here is Rob, a top coach who roomed with Andre Agassi at Nick Bollittieri’s Florida Tennis Academy, offering me a third method. I jumped on it.

What a joke. The first time I tried it with a better player who always beats me, I won just ONE GAME in three sets. Usually I win two or three, and sometimes four in ONE set. But none? Or just one? Over 60% of my strokes went long. Terrible!!! This fellow told me that keeping my feet planted was a mistake. Maybe I missed one of Rob’s vital points.

I watched the pros on TV and saw that they pivoted their feet after the swing, so I tried that the next time, and had a better result. But still not great. Then I was playing at the school, and Rob came in with his students, and I barely had time to tell him the results. He said I had to also bend my knees and rise up, just like a basketball toss, so that I can transfer my weight into the ball. And keep the face of the racket facing the net—never the frame pointing at the other side—so that a top spin will be created.

The next day I tried that in a strong game in which I am one of the weaker players, and by god, I was a new man. I hit a much more powerful ball, it went in more than out, it had spin. I was ecstatic.

It turned out to be much easier to learn a completely new way to hit the ball than to keep on trying to slightly change the old way. I was creating new circuits and new muscle memories. Rob also told me to look at the ceiling after I served, rather than watch the ball or the seams. Finally I learned that when I bend my knees on the serve, I should be bending DOWN for more power and not leaning back on just my right leg. A major difference that I never appreciated. My serve is now also “more better.”

I can’t wait to play again this week and create more comfort with the new ways of hitting. And it was so easy to adopt a completely new way to swing. Now if only I can discover or be taught new ways to do things in the rest of my life. I guess that is where teachers, coaches and self-help books come in pret-ty handy.

Rob also said, “What people do not realize is that the first movement in any stroke usually determines the outcome and effectiveness of the stroke.” Maybe I can apply that to daily personal and business life as well.

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How To Create Better Performance In Sport And Life

Here is a secret I read about that is allowing me to execute new techniques in tennis that are improving my game. More importantly, this same strategy might also be applicable to all other aspects of our lives.

You know I am always attempting to improve my athletic performance, especially in tennis, but also squash, ping pong, skiing, shooting, hunting, archery, etc. etc. No matter how hard I try, it is incredibly difficult for me. But also for some professionals and strong amateurs.

As I watch tennis tournaments, I see certain pros making the same weak shots over and over, even if they are not winning consistently by using those shots. Roddick does his slow slice backhand. Schiavone does her slice shots on both sides. Llodra still plays serve and volley (and gets passed constantly). And I hear the announcers—often former pros themselves—saying that it’s almost impossible to change your style, your habits, even if they don’t lead to points and victory.

By the way, I see this among adults, when it comes to their careers. Even when some actions do not lead to success or positive results, they stick to what is familiar and hope that the outcomes will be different. It may be basic human nature that serious change can only be altered by a trauma or life-threatening or economic-survival confrontations.

I recently wrote about college squash players who see a new kind of shot (from overseas) that makes many easy points, but they are unable to incorporate those shots into their games. And three college squash coaches confirmed how hard or impossible it is for their team members to adopt those new shots and use them in their games.

This week I spoke to a prep school tennis coach who said his kids were great on ground strokes, but were incredibly resistant to practicing overheads, serves and net volleys. They stay with what they do well, practicing ground strokes for hours, even though they are are just young teenagers still in high school. Already too “old” to change? The coach can barely convince his students to practice the other parts of their game.

Now I am a much older guy (I will be 71 this week) who has only been playing tennis as an adult for five years. I read, take lessons, watch videos and TV and attempt as much as possible to improve my game. I have come to accept that in spite of my new knowledge or instruction, I often can’t implement the new advice or technique.

Some challenges are remarkably easy in concept: watch the ball when you serve. The least pressured shot in the game, I think. I am totally in control, no running required, no angles or spins to return. And yet I just haven’t been able to consistently prevent my brain and head from looking over the net at my opponent’s court BEFORE I HIT THE BALL to see where it is going. So frustrating!!!

I have told myself to “watch the ball.” I read a book that told me to “watch the seams.” I recently attempted to “Look for the brand” (the printed name of the manufacturer). Sometimes I can execute one of these three necessary instructions. But not most of the time. I see those slo-mo videos of Federer and others staring at the ball until it’s left the racket long ago. I strive to enter their skin, brain and body. I scream at myself to imitate the video. But I can’t. All I can do is laugh at my bad habit.

Then I read somewhere that it almost impossible to modify an existing, ingrained habit. That is why it is so important to learn skills correctly at a very young age. That is why so many tennis and other sports stars were taught the ideal way to play their games, when they were 5-10 years old! Start later than that with bad habits, and it almost impossible to break them, modify them, get rid of them. The neural circuits are too embedded.

So what do you do? Here is the simple answer: create brand new habits. Don’t even try to modify the old bad ones. Force your brain and muscle memory to make a new circuit, a brand new way of doing the old trick. In my next post, I will describe what happened last week?

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Injured, Panicked, Ashamed

This is a true confession. Last week I was walking towards the squash court for the fourth day in a row—two of them after 2+ hours of tennis—and my left knee started clicking or popping. No pain, just sounds. I hit squash balls that day and the next, but still just tightness. I have no recollection of any twisting or sudden jarring that would have done ANYTHING.

I spoke to a doctor who said I was describing bone to bone rubbing, a lack of fluid, and advised me to take glucosamine, which is over the counter. He said it could be the onset of arthritis, didn’t sound like a tear. I looked up some quad exercises that might help.

The clicking was intermittent, and over the next few days there was some serious soreness.

So I started worrying A LOT that maybe my super workout, 2-4 hour sports days might end. Maybe I had Lyme disease. Maybe I wouldn’t be able to play tennis into my nineties, or even my eighties. Damn! Just when I was improving. Could I have arthritis, a torn knee?

I’ve spoken to friends going crazy about not being able to exercise for weeks after leg breaks from skiing. I’ve talked to people who have had clicking joints for years and just took it and the pain in stride (“I don’t even feel it any more. I could never be a ninja and sneak up silently on anyone.”) Others tell me that they are always in pain from sports exertions and injuries. And I hear countless stories at the tennis club about players of all ages who have given up the game, because the risk of serious disability is too great for their hurting knees and shoulders.

Then I spoke to friends who have—or told me—about illnesses that are so serious that they might die. The fear and reality these people live with each day sounds terrible. They go to hospitals and see doctors weekly or monthly. I can’t imagine what that is like, even though I have spent months in a hospital recovering from hepatitis and jaundice in Korea, was flown back to the States on a stretcher, and took weeks of recuperation, before I could walk one block.

So now I feel great shame that I am upset over not playing tennis another 5-15 years. Of course Life is NOT fair. And we have to play with the cards that it dealt us. Some are poor, like bad genes. Others are crappy, like accidents that no one ever thought about or were one in a thousand or one in a million chances we would be hurt. Wrong place wrong time. Or OK place, but still wrong time.

How can I moan about it? But everything is relative.

I knew someone who was making over a million dollars a year many decades ago. I was making less than $35,000 then. Yet he was hanging around with tycoons acquiring over $50 million a year. He felt poor. He was frustrated. He felt inadequate.

A friend told me about an acquaintance who had inherited $600 million, but was depressed in 2009, when his fortune declined by a third. So he only had $400 million to his name. Laughable to me. Misery to the rich guy.

How do we resolve these attitudes? It’s like being caught in two or more worlds. Glad that I can play at all…have the time, don’t have to work every minute, have the health, live near a court. Others are sick, working like animals at my age, or are dead. I should be grateful for any level of play and decent life. Even if I can no longer run safely around the court.

But then there is the other world, where I want to keep going, improve, have the greater satisfaction that comes with prowess, cardio, health, more skill. It’s not enough just to be alive and healthy. I want to push and grow and accomplish. Greedy for more, lusting for continued success.

Maybe it is just built into our DNA. A human survival instinct. As long as we’re alive, it’s not enough to just watch TV on a couch or the ocean from the beach. We need the challenges and reaches, the competition and grasping for achievement. What do you think?

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The Difficulty Of Thinking And Acting Outside the Box

Ali Farag (left) and Ramit Tandon in the college finals

You hear it all the time: to be a success in business, you have to think outside the box. Also in America, the squeaky wheel gets the grease…though in Japan the nail that sticks up too high gets hammered down. So some cultures encourage individuality, while others promote conformity and not rocking the boat.

In sport however—and maybe war—it pays to be different, to surprise your opponents, to be able to deceive and do the unexpected. That is why it was so unbelievably thrilling this past three-day weekend at the college squash individual nationals to see the country’s top players competing to be the best, the first, the number one talent. But in addition to the joy of watching outstanding sport, there was an incredible lesson learned that I still can’t digest easily. And it has to do with culture, mentality, and the inhibitions of group behavior.

A happy champion kisses his father, Amr

The first place trophy went to Ali Farag, a Harvard sophomore who grew up playing squash in Egypt. Three of the top five professional players in the world (and 7 of the top 16) are all from Egypt. Even in 2007, the Wall Street Journal was writing about how the Egyptians had “Cornered the Squash Racket.” So Ali grew up in a society that is squash-centric, where some say squash is the first or second most popular sport (along with tennis), and where young players at 15 or 16 are so good they become professionals. In fact Ali won the world Juniors and became the 66th ranked professional, before he transferred to Harvard and can compete as a student. He is only 20.

Watching him play is like art: fluid, deft, surprising, precise. But most impressive is that he has shots that I have hardly ever—or never—seen others use. Granted I am not so experienced in watching, but I have attended dozens of matches involving top college players, and this weekend and two weeks earlier at the team finals, I saw Ali making shots the others don’t even attempt. Shots that win him points, games and matches.

Ali (ctr) with mother, Mona, and best friend Mohamed Abdelmaksoud

I sat next to a college squash coach at one match and heard that Ali is certainly gifted, “and his mind works so fast that he is considering five different shots in the time that others are just planning to use one. He chooses instinctively…It happens so fast that even Ali doesn’t have time to think about it.”

Why don’t the other players just copy Ali’s shots I asked a second college coach? “Because they are used to just doing what they have grown up doing.” That wasn’t very satisfying.

So I asked Ali himself after one match. “Where I grew up, everyone plays like this,” he explained. “I just followed what I saw all around me.”

Why don’t the other players do the shots that you do? I asked him. “I don’t know. Ask them” he advised me.

So I asked a third coach, one I have known for a few years, why don’t Ali’s competitors adapt? They see a new shot, a winning shot, at the beginning of the season. Why don’t they learn how to do it, practice until they do it perfectly themselves? “It’s too late for the seniors,” I was told. “Maybe the juniors can try to integrate some of the shots into their game. But it’s very hard if you haven’t grown up doing it. You can’t easily change your style of playing.”

Well I am crushed. This is too upsetting. You have to adapt in life to survive or succeed. And I am being told that in squash—and maybe other sports…and maybe in other life pursuits—once you learn how to do something, you can’t change easily…or at all? That is terrible. If your career meets a roadblock, is it hopeless to surmount it? That’s not what I was taught. If your profession becomes obsolete, are you supposed to go on welfare? Not what I have been taught. If you play football, and an opposing team comes up with an original play or defense, can’t you learn it? I thought so. If serve and volley tennis strategy was losing in an age of new rackets to base line play, shouldn’t you change your tennis game? I know that is what the newer pros have done. Couldn’t the older guys?

But in squash, three coaches told me it just isn’t so easy…so Ali and others with his skills might just dominate the game for a while. Very exciting to watch. It was like a professional outmaneuvering an amateur in some of the matches. Brilliant. Unexpected. Masterful. He just does his thing, barely breaks a sweat. He is from another world, and the new culture he is visiting can’t respond effectively, so he wins. He never lost a game in the 15 he played in the tournament this weekend. No one won more than 7 points in 12 of those games, and no more than 5 in 9 of those games.

In the final against Ramit Tandon from India of Columbia University, Ali gave up 10 and 8 points the first two games, but just 4 to win the match. Quite a talent. I still think there is a bigger lesson here to be learned about life…

After showing this story above to Ali’s father Amr, he wrote the following comment:

“We read the article and we were both very impressed. We liked the flow of ideas, the very descriptive words and definitely above all the philosophical part linking learning to life in general. However, I might have some explanation. I think it is easier to learn things when we are younger and definitely things we acquire during childhood become part of our system. It is like you sometimes find a kid 6 or 7 years old who can speak 4 different languages because his parents come from different parts of the world and yet live in another country. That would be more difficult for a teenager for example. Yet, I also believe in your words that this should not be an excuse for us to stop learning and always trying to acquire new skills to get us where we want.”

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Practice Does NOT Make Perfect

As I have said many times, you can tell a great deal about a person by how he or she handles the challenges and frustrations of competitive sports. Sport can also teach one a great deal about philosophy and how to live a life. Well here are some examples of why sport and life are so frustrating.

I wrote earlier that after watching a weekend of college squash (the team nationals), I wanted to upgrade my game. But too few contests and too little practice made me unable to return serves well or at all. I lose half my points or more by not returning the serve.

So I asked Bjorn Runquist, a squash coach at nearby Kent School, to hit me a few hundred serves. Practice Makes Perfect. Right? Wrong! Prior to the lesson, I imagined I would just hit ball after ball and improve my eye-hand coordination. Build up muscle memory and confidence. But after less than 10 returns, things changed. My expectations were not to be realized. I had new frustrations, because Bjorn told me I was stroking the ball incorrectly. I was following through like a tennis player. And that is partly why I either couldn’t hit the ball or returned it so weakly that my opponent won a simple point. So the coach made me practice the back hand stroke instead. Along the rail (wall), cross court, deep into the other side. And then came his startling insight: “Practice does NOT make you perfect. PERFECT practice is what makes you perfect.”

It’s about time I discovered the difference. Even though I have only been playing squash infrequently over 2 1/2 years, I have been watching hours of it live by following some of the best college players in America. But I never noticed the correct back hand swing, and that poor technique has been dooming my returns. Maybe this week I can go to the nearby court and practice “perfectly” to become a better player.

This frustration on the squash court reminds me of a madness on the tennis court. Originally I was taught by a coach who fed me 60-75 balls one after another out of a wire basket. I’d seen other coaches with supermarket baskets full of balls. My second coach used just three! After I’d hit one ball, he’d come forward and talk to me about my shot. He’d ask what I thought about it, how it felt, if I noticed that I did anything incorrectly or why I did what I did? Then he’d feed me another ball…and we’d talk about that shot. After the third ball, he and I would go pick up the three balls. I wanted to practice swings by the thousands. This coach would drive me crazy (at first) with the frustrating talk and minimal hits.

But like the squash coach last week, this tennis pro also believed that practicing the wrong swing over and over was not beneficial. In fact it was totally detrimental to build incorrect muscle memory. It took me a long time to accept this unconventional approach to teaching tennis…or any physical skill. But I became calm…eventually…after incredible lessons of how to deal with expectations, frustration and relaxing on the court, like a Zen Buddhist monk. Can you see my virtual robes? I have to avoid tripping over them. I also had to learn how to become more aggressive—a killer in fact—so that I could win more of my games.

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Rower/Adventurer John Fairfax Battled Raw And Primitive Nature

John in Britannia, in which he became the first person to row solo across the Atlantic Ocean.

Here is an amazing story about a man who was clearly NOT ordinary. But what an inspiration. John Fairfax, a British journalist and adventurer, just died February 8th at age 74. He is best known for being the first person to row solo across the Atlantic and (with Sylvia Cook) to row first across the Pacific ocean.

Among the highlights in his life:

* Ended his Italian Boy Scouting career with a pistol rampage at age 9
* Went to live in the Argentine jungle “like Tarzan” at age 13
* Lived as a pirate and gun smuggler
* Gave up piracy to appease his mother, and farmed minks for a while instead
* In 1969, rowed solo across the Atlantic (“battling storms, sharks and encroaching madness”), and received a congratulatory letter from the crew of Apollo 11
* In 1971, rowed from San Francisco to Hayman Island, Australia with Sylvia Cook, whom he met via a personal ad
* Bitten by a shark during the Pacific trip
* Attempted suicide by letting a jaguar attack him
* Lived in later years as a professional Baccarat player

This video of John just after he made it to Hollywood Beach, Florida in 1969 at age 32 records his description (starts at 8:15) of the white, mankiller shark attack (he was in the water scraping the bottom of his boat) and how he defended himself with a knife. Earlier he says how he is “a lone wolf…a happy guy, and therefore I don’t have any problems…I never thought I wouldn’t make it…It was a little harder than I thought, but I never give up.”

Mr. Fairfax was often asked why he chose a rowboat to challenge two roiling oceans. “Almost anybody with a little bit of know-how can sail…I’m after a battle with nature, primitive and raw.”

The row took 180 days. Upon completion of his row he received a message of congratulations from the crew of Apollo 11 who had walked on the moon the day after he had completed his voyage. In their letter the crew stated:

“Yours, however, was the accomplishment of one resourceful individual, while ours depended upon the help of thousands of dedicated workers in the United States and all over the world. As fellow explorers, we salute you on this great occasion.”

Fairfax used two different custom-made boats on the ocean journeys, and he used the stars to help him navigate. He survived by eating up to eight pounds of fish a day. He had a system to convert ocean water into drinking water.

“On the Pacific, a shark took a big chunk of his arm out” when he was spearing fish, said Tiffany Fairfax, his wife of 31 years. “There you are on the Pacific Ocean and there’s no hospital, and you need to row. He was an amazing, amazing human being.”

“He believed a human could accomplish anything if they had confidence,” she said. “When he would get an idea in mind, he would pursue it and say, `I can do it.'”

Fairfax remained lifelong friends with Sylvia Cook, 73, his rowing partner across the Pacific who lives near London.

John Fairfax and his girlfriend, Sylvia Cook, made history in 1972 when they became the first known people to cross the Pacific Ocean by rowboat.

This link to the Ocean Rowing Society contains excerpts from a book beginning in 1966, when John is seeking support for the first solo trip across the Atlantic, as well as selected journal entries during his historic voyage. Also included are details of his early years as a boy.

While seeking people to help plan his first transoceanic trip, he met Sylvia Cook, a secretary who became his girlfriend and fellow traveler on his two-person expedition.

“The only reason I am doing it is because it is the hardest way to cross the Pacific,” Fairfax told The Times in 1971. “This is the Everest of the sea.”

They set out in another custom-made rowboat, the Britannia II, in April 1971 and endured fierce storms and a cyclone that knocked out their ability to communicate for the final two months of the trip. Unable to swim, Cook spent much of the trip lashed to the boat.

“Had Been Feared Drowned” a Times headline declared when they arrived 363 days later at Hayman Island, Australia. Both appeared to be in good physical shape, but Fairfax had a deep gash on his arm caused by a shark bite while he was spearing fish.

John and Sylvia

After his second historic voyage, he declared: “It was a miserable journey. I don’t care if I never touch another oar.”

Here are excerpts from the New York Times obit by Margalit Fox:

…For all its bravura, Mr. Fairfax’s seafaring almost pales beside his earlier ventures. Footloose and handsome, he was a flesh-and-blood character out of Graham Greene, with more than a dash of Hemingway and Ian Fleming shaken in… Read the rest of this entry »

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Trinity’s Squash Coach Writes About The Team’s Loss In National Finals

Trinity on left, Princeton on right, Princeton Coach Callahan talks about his team's victory

Trinity College’s men’s squash team won the national championship 13 years in a row under the guidance and leadership of Coach Paul Assiante. The team also set a record of winning 252 matches in a row, an historic success that only this year was interrupted by Yale’s long-sought victory. (Search Trinity College on this site, and you can read many of the stories I have written about these achievements) Paul’s book describes how he/they did it, how he built character in his boys, how they rose to the occasion in 2009, when they beat Princeton 5-4 in the last of nine matches on the Tigers home court. I was there then to scream and see victory won in the fifth game of the ninth match, when Baset Chaudry came from behind at 0-5 to win the game 9-5. Monumental excitement.

colorful Princeton Tiger fan

Yesterday Trinity fell to Princeton in the Nationals, and I was there to watch the effort, hear the Princeton fans’ cheers and whistles as their long-awaited victory edged closer and closer, and to tell the saddened Trinity players afterward that they had given it their best.

When I wrote to Coach Assiante this morning, here is what he sent back to me. As one friend wrote me back, “it brings tears to my eyes.”

Dear Friends of Trinity
For the last 13 years on this Monday I woke up happy. Happy because our men had brought another national championship home to the college
Today I woke up proud. I have never ever been more proud to be at Trinity, to be a bantam and of a group of young men.

Yesterday we lost in the finals to Princeton 5-4 in the national finals to a terrific Princeton squad and I could not be more happy for my dear friend coach Bob Callahan. He is a class act and he has waited a long time for this.
Our path to the finals was challenging in that after losing mid season to Yale and seeing the streak slip away, we rebounded beautifully and won the remainder of our matches.
In the quarter finals we beat Franklin and Marshall but did not play well. Against Harvard in the semi finals we won a mighty battle that finished Saturday night at 9pm
Fifteen hours late we were standing on court in front of a large and boisterous Princeton crowd to play for the crown
We went down 1-2 after the first round, but came roaring back to go up 4-2. Sadly our men could not hold off the tigers and saw the lead slip away to a 4-5 loss

So why would I be proud you might ask
During the award ceremony both teams lined up to receive their awards and to congratulate each other. I looked into the eyes of everyone of our guys and there was not a dry eye in the house.
This loss hurt them deeply!!!!!!!!!!!!!
The boys went “all in” ! They completely exposed themselves and as a result they felt the full pain of defeat. That is living life to the fullest. Most people never take the chance to experience either the elation of victory or the devastating sting of defeat
They congratulated Princeton with class, and walked out of that facility visibly shaken but like men!
In life you are remembered not for what you do, but for how you do it.
This is a group that will be remembered as courageous and classy. Vince Lombardi said “show me a good loser, and I will show you a loser”
When we stopped on the garden state parkway to eat two hours later they were still crying.
These men are not losers
They are champions, and they represented this game, this program and this college in the absolute finest ways possible.

Please join me in raising a metaphorical glass to these young men.
I could not be any more proud.
Coach A

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What Are Your Goals In Sports?

David Brooks wrote a column in today’s New York Times about the moral differences between professional sport and religious teachings. The excerpt below about why we watch sports and why professionals play sports and what they are thinking may not be totally accurate, but it is worth sharing to readers of this site. I have written often, and said just this week on the tennis court, that “it’s only a game.” Yes I want to win, but striving to win the point, experiencing the challenge, the uncertainty, the satisfaction of a skillful shot, the respect of my fellows and the admiration for an opponent’s winner are all part of why I play sports. What about you? What are your goals beyond victory, domination and maybe local fame?

The moral universe of modern sport is oriented around victory and supremacy. The sports hero tries to perform great deeds in order to win glory and fame. It doesn’t really matter whether he has good intentions. His job is to beat his opponents and avoid the oblivion that goes with defeat.

The modern sports hero is competitive and ambitious. (Let’s say he’s a man, though these traits apply to female athletes as well). He is theatrical. He puts himself on display.

He is assertive, proud and intimidating. He makes himself the center of attention when the game is on the line. His identity is built around his prowess. His achievement is measured by how much he can elicit the admiration of other people — the roar of the crowd and the respect of ESPN.

His primary virtue is courage — the ability to withstand pain, remain calm under pressure and rise from nowhere to topple the greats.

This is what we go to sporting events to see. This sporting ethos pervades modern life and shapes how we think about business, academic and political competition.

But there’s no use denying — though many do deny it — that this ethos violates the religious ethos on many levels. The religious ethos is about redemption, self-abnegation and surrender to God.

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Joe Marshall’s Attitude About Tennis: It’s A Good Day To Die

In response to my post yesterday about success coming partly from attitude, Joe Marshall wrote the following:

When you’re down in tennis, it’s easy to make the other guys into magicians. They’re not. It’s easy to make yourselves into losers. You’re not. You are both just guys swatting a tennis ball around. The key points we lost were lost by unforced errors by us, and better consistentcy by them. It was just a few shots…..a couple of inches here, a couple of inches there.

Serving out a match always has its own separate drama. The servers, who have been cruising along, suddenly say to themselves….”Now don’t blow it, you’ve got them.” But it’s difficult for the mind NOT to blow it…..better to say something positive like “Get a good first serve in,” “Move your feet.” or “Keep the ball in play”…some practical advice that will help keep you in the moment, and solve your biggest problem…..WINNING ONE POINT…..that’s all you can do anyway.

So for us, as returners, the goal is, “Make them play.”

No easy points, no unforced errors…..Make them EARN the victory, and if they can, tip your hats to them……so you lost a tennis match, so what? As the Roman soldiers who guarded the borders of the empire used to say, each beautiful Mediterranean morning, “It’s a good day to die.”

Today might be your last day. The point you are playing may be your last point, so LIVE IT UP! Play your best and enjoy every minute. Even if you send up a weak lob right in front of the net, guess where they are going to hit it, and run there at full steam……IT feels a lot better than standing there bemoaning your fate, and more often than you think, you just might guess right and save the point.

ON the first point of the key break game at 3-5, I figured David would serve and volley. I figured if I could get a decent lob over his head, we could make him run back to retrieve and take over the net. I told my feet to move, and guessed he’d be going for my backhand, which he had been doing successfully. He hit a cautious serve and I was able to get the thing in. That sent a message We weren’t dead yet. Ira smacked a clean winner on David’s serve to the ad court, and I was able to get another lob in at 0-30. By then we had the momentum, we broke, and when Ira put a couple of overheads away off good first serves of mine in the next game, we had them on their heels, and were able to play another game of controlled aggression to break.

Ira served it out. We shook hands….Great day of tennis for everyone….Let’s do it again.

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Success Often Requires A Positive Attitude

The best thing about winning the third set and the match in tennis today, was that my partner, Joe Marshall, enabled me to change my attitude by 180 degrees. Even though I have written about how important the correct attitude is in sports, as well as in life, I forget or am unable to always apply it in a stress situation.

Having won the first set in a tiebreaker and then losing the second, we were really after the third set…the big one. My team was down 3-5, I couldn’t get my first serve in, and Joe and I were missing easy winners. I automatically attempted to excuse myself and make him feel better by stating that “I guess we are both off today.” He slapped me (verbally) right down in a nice way, ordering me to focus on the next point, not think negatively, and certainly not give up. We then played our best points of the day, broke our opponents twice and won 7-5. I even served the winning game.

Given how many unforced errors we were making, I would never have believed we could come back from being so far behind. It was magical. And I had many great winning net volleys and overhead smashes, along with my partner’s numerous gets and points. How does this happen? How do a few words cause not only the renewed determination, but the ability to actually achieve the goal? How does a changed attitude lead to success?

I don’t know. I wish I did. Can you help me understand?

The awareness that it is possible should persuade me to never give up on the court and in my life. We all have our down days and periods, but maybe it just takes someone jarring us out of bad habits and poor attitudes to make us believe we can do it. I know people with positive attitudes are healthier than those who are negative. And those who believe in themselves have a better chance at succeeding in the task than those who are sure they will never achieve their goals.

But how does just believing something actually affect the outcome. Or even just striving and aiming for a target help you reach it? I’ve read that faith can move mountains. But how does that work?

Maybe it doesn’t matter “how,” but only that it does. The cancer-origin doctor I quoted earlier this week said he can see that people like the Japanese who didn’t eat much red meat didn’t have much cancer. Then when their diet changed to be more Western and included more red meat, the number of cancer patients “skyrocketed.” He has no idea exactly what the biological connection is. But he can see the cause and effect.

Ben Franklin eliminated from his vocabulary words like “I hate…it kills me…I could have died…” He said in his autobiography that these thoughts were negative, poisoned his brain, would cause harm. I never forgot that guidance that my father insisted I follow as a child. If I had been playing much tennis then, he might have said what Joe told me today.

Now let’s see if I can apply this advice more often in the future. Like the next time I play tennis. What could be more important?

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Part 3—Running Barefoot And The Possible Fraudulence Of The Athletic Shoe Industry

Below is an article by Richard A. Lovett that appeared in National Geographic News on January 27, 2010. It talks about the benefits of running barefoot, especially fewer injuries and smoother motions. Both as a result of less stress on the feet and a different balance for the whole body.

In Christopher McDougall’s book, Born To Run, there is a whole section about barefoot running and also about the companies who sell running shoes. Out to make money, these companies sell shoes that are actually BAD for your feet! As the shoes support the foot’s bones and muscles and ligaments, the same foot does not develop as well and actually becomes flabby, which results in more injuries than those of barefoot runners! It’s a huge fraud on the public. “In fact,” McDougall writes, “there’s no evidence that running shoes are any help at all in injury prevention…a 20 billion dollar industry seems to be based on nothing but empty promises and wishful thinking…”

Naturally I can’t comment on the legitimacy of this view. But I love the idea that it’s so radical. Of course I have thought for years that it is important to have proper support or your feet, protect them from the pavement, rocks, glass, twists and sprains. Here is a knowledgeable and experienced runner and author challenging everything I have taken for granted my whole life. And that is the main point of this post…that we get into thought patterns that are often inaccurate or even harmful.

Now here is Lovett’s article:

Going barefoot isn’t just for strolling on the beach: Running barefoot reduces stresses on your feet and may prevent injuries known to afflict traditionally shod runners, a new study says.

In his bestselling book Born to Run, Christopher McDougall revealed that the best long-distance runners on the planet may be Mexico’s Tarahumara Indians, who race barefoot or in thin sandals through the remote Copper Canyons of Chihuahua state.

The new study used high-speed video and a bathroom scale-like device called a force plate to digitally dissect the moment-by-moment stresses on the feet of 63 runners as they ran barefoot.

The research revealed that running barefoot changes the way a person’s feet hit the ground.

Runners in shoes tend to land on their heels, so sports shoe makers have spent years designing footwear with gels, foams, or air pockets in the heels to reduce the shock of impact.

But barefoot runners more often land on the forefoot, near the base of the toes. This causes a smaller part of the foot to come to a sudden stop when the foot first lands, allowing the natural spring-like motion of the foot and leg to absorb any further shock.

“This form of landing causes almost no collision force,” lead author Daniel Lieberman, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard University, said in an email.

Not that the benefits of barefoot running should be a surprise, he added: “Humans were able to run for millions of years without shoes or in just sandals. Read the rest of this entry »

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Thinking Too Much Can Kill You

I’m thinking too much on the court. And it’s hurting my game. I remember studying Bushido, The Way of the Samurai Warrior, in feudal Japan. He had to learn the sword moves over and over, until the weapon was like an extension of his arm. And he had to know so thoroughly what to do that there was no thought. Of course there wasn’t time for thought. A wasted split second could mean dismemberment and death. The moves had to become an automatic reaction.

Years ago I listened to a famous photographer advise wannabees how he takes great, museum-worthy photographs. For the first 30 minutes, he discussed a 9th century Japanese monk. After the break he said, “I walk along with my 8 by 10 camera until I see the picture. Then I put the tripod down and snap the shutter.” The audience was understandably frustrated. Some of us were amused

I am now doing exactly the opposite of that in sports. I am thinking almost ALL THE TIME. And it’s killing my game and causing me to lose. My misses are bringing down the energy of my partners. My teams have won just one out of seven sets in the last two days. Granted that I am the weakest player in all these matches. True that the other guys are all outstanding and could be classed as 4.0 to 4.5+ amateurs. (Maybe I am a 3.5 now.) But I am determined to improve and play closer to their level. I also don’t care that they are 5-25+ years younger and have played for many decades…as one young man said, “since I was four.”

I showed my coach a few months ago how my serve had improved. I told him I had this little mantra I recited silently before each toss to remind me what to do: “high, bend, brand…perp, whip snap.” It is shorthand for toss the ball high, bend your knees to form a bow that gives you more torque and power, look for the brand name on the ball, turn your shoulder—rather than your stomach—perpendicular to the net, whip your racket down to your back and up, snap your wrist. I imagined that Nadal was thinking something like this in the long pause before he tosses to serve.

The coach’s eyeballs rolled with amazement and hopelessness. “Just forget all that: toss the ball and hit it. Your body knows what to do. No one can remember all that stuff,” he responded. “Or try focusing on just one of those points.”

During play I am attempting to remember to turn my body to the left for a backhand, turn my body to the right for an overhead, follow through for a forehand, rush forward if my partner lobs, send a lob if the opponents charge the net, have the racket butt point toward the net, start to poach during the opponent’s swing, move forward after the receiver contacts the ball, etc, etc, etc. The list is pages long, now fleshed out by strategies that I am hearing from other players I meet, read about in books and see in videos. So much information to process. It’s wearing me out. My game is far far far from effortless. Except at the net. That just seems to flow automatically.

I asked one tennis friend how he knows when to move forward to poach. He says he just does. He never thinks about it. He has mastered this art over years of play. Another friend says it takes 10 years to become a good player, after practicing hours each day a few days a week.

So what is next? My daughter says she had drills at the summer tennis camps she went to for seven years. That is how she developed her beautiful strokes. Joe Marshall says I should hit backhands against a wall, like a million times. Practice, practice, practice. Like the samurai. I said it is cold outside now. Joe said he used to play in 10 degrees. Bundle up until you start sweating…soon you will be taking off layers until you are in a tee-shirt and not feeling the cold.

Along with the practice, I have to become a Zen monk again on the court. Unfortunately I can see how learning basic techniques and strategies really helps my game. Unfortunately I can see how thinking too much and worrying about where to go and stand is hurting my game. “Something wrong.” “Keep eye on ball.” Do you think those two maxims are enough to improve when I play the big boys? Stay tuned…

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Are You Kidding Me? It Seems Impossible.

Played two tough doubles matches today, filling in for absent players. A total of 4 1/4 hours. I was pretty tired, even spacey, by the sixth set. My team faced very strong players in the first (morning) match: we lost all three sets by major margins (2-6, 3-6, 0-6). The second (afternoon) contest with equally powerful players was much closer: my side lost 5-7, won 7-6 in a tiebreaker (8-6), and then lost 3-6. Many many close points and games. In fact we were behind in the tiebreaker 0-4.

My afternoon partner, Joe Marshall (who writes doubles tennis strategy for this site), was pretty frustrated with me, because I couldn’t read what our opponents were up to. After the match, he showed me how to watch the other side’s swing and tell in a fraction of a second whether the return shot to me was going to be a lob or a ground stroke. Wow!! I had no idea an amateur like me was capable of that. I remember a while ago hearing that someone at my club could predict where the serve was going by the angle of the server’s racket. I am still struggling to return the ball at all with enough oomph to not have a winner come back at me. But noticing a racket angle? Or the beginning of a swing? That seems way out of my league. Hell, I still have trouble just watching the ball when I am about to hit it, much less just before my opponent moves his/her racket.

Maybe I am not giving myself enough credit. When I first learned how to print photography books, a production expert could see color differences and misalignment problems on an early-printed page that I couldn’t see at all. Eventually I COULD see what was on the page and detect the differences myself. But it took hours and years. I hope I don’t have to wait years to perceive and react to these tennis nuances. I can’t wait to start looking the next time I play…

Now, somehow, at 10:30 pm, I have to do some exercise—even 5 minutes—before I crash for the night. Whose idea was this daily mini-workout anyway? This week it’s proving harder than ever, even though I am up to 54 straight days once I accomplish tonight’s challenge. Two days ago I did 129 push ups, 50 before a break, and the rest in 12 sets. I also strained my back and have been ignoring it during more than 6 hours of tennis these last two days. High class problem. I am fortunate to be able to play, especially when I went to a funeral yesterday for a man who was younger than I am.

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I Am Trounced On The Squash Court

How did you spend New Year’s Eve? And then New Year’s Day? I drank too much wine and champagne with friends and family during my last 2011 dinner and midnight. Up early with barking dogs, I was not only tired and sluggish, but also had a slight hangover. Ah well, it’s not rare that I ignore my capoeira master’s instruction (of 28 years ago) to never poison my body with alcohol. But it isn’t often that I drink so much that I feel it the next day. And as long as I was so woozy, why not start the year off with a few squash games after months of not playing?

My 23-year-old son was the opponent, and he played a lot of squash in high school. Beating him is a special occasion, which I wasn’t exactly up for. We played five games, and I lost them all. Very frustrating. The fourth sounds like it was close, when I tell you I lost 7-9, but then I have to confess I was ahead 5-0…until he once again got tough.

When he was younger, I always made him work hard to beat me. No easy wins just because he was a kid. Now he gives me the same treatment. I get it. It’s my own medicine. But winning any point is a real triumph. That fourth game felt so good—I had lost the earlier ones scoring just 3-5 points—that when he asked me afterward if I was up for yet one more, I thought maybe I should quit having come so close. But I didn’t. I actually fantasized that I might be victorious in the fifth one.

Ha! What a joke. I never won a point and ended up with a humiliating 0-9 score. But all the cardio did wake me up, burn off the booze, and humble me greatly. How does he anticipate my shots and reach out successfully to them for winners? Must be the speed and energy of youth. Makes me wish I’d started playing when I was younger.

At least I can still play, move at all, make a few points (some games!) and bond with my boy. What a joy to see his satisfied smile. A great way to begin the new year…Then today I played again with a friend. Love that game.

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50 Straight Days Of Exercise

I am still doing some kind of exercise every day. I finished out the year with 125 push ups in eight minutes of straining: 47 non stop and then multiple sets of 5-8 at a time to add up to 125. Being this disciplined isn’t proving so difficult. Just inconvenient some nights as I delay eating dinner or going out. I generally alternate with bicycle crunches and am up to 300 non stop, although I am touching my elbow to my opposite knee no more than 199 times (196 yesterday).

This week I arm-wrestled a 23-year old who claims he can do 50 push ups upside down with legs against the wall. This means he is pushing up his entire body weight each time. He has very strong wrists, and I was NOT victorious, although I did make him work hard one time for his inevitable win. I also played tennis and did a two-minute plank after bent over rows.

The funny thing is that I met a man who is in the gym 3-4 times a week. A friend informed me tonight that he is exercising 45 minutes a day five days a week. I know there are people who exercise every single day of the year. I will never grasp how these people do it, fit it in, make it happen. But at least I am making my own kind of progress. You have to stop comparing all the time and just do the best you can with whatever skills, talents and abilities you have.

Let’s hope 2012 brings a happier world to people everywhere. These are terrible times, and the best of times. Some are fighting for freedom and opportunity. Some are protesting injustice and exploitation. Many are frustrated with their situation, finances, politicians. At the same time, I am doing a few push ups and crunches, because they feel good, help me look better, fitter, better toned. In a couple of weeks I may be skiing in Idaho, so I have to really get in shape for that. All so meaningless…inconsequential…and the ball will drop in Times Square in 12 minutes, and the wheel will start it’s annual turn once again. Happy New Year everyone…

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Calorie Counters And Pu Pu Platter Eaters

I drove a friend to a dog show and fell in love with the afghans. Elegant dogs that reminded me of fashion models on the runway or in hair ads. You can compare how the hair moves on the afghan and then the women. Just check out a few seconds of the models’ hair moving in the runway video below to see what I am talking about. And then you can watch the hair product ad below it.

thin and thin

Next I noticed how thin the dogs’ heads are underneath all their long hair. I learned that these show dogs are bred that way, because it supposedly looks good, wins prizes, is what the judges want to see in champions.

Then I flashed back to all the models I ever knew or heard about who are supposed to be ultra thin to make the clothes hang just right…how those models watch every calorie they eat, count them, are always hungry, because their livelihoods depend on it.

Karlie Kloss at 19: too thin

I had just bumped into a photo of a 19-year-old model who has been in the biz for eight years. One article said she is too thin now. Another fashion critic was having difficulty adjusting to seeing a formerly cute teenager posing nude. Karlie Kloss says she is “numb to the nudity. It’s just part of the job.” Do you think she is too thin, just right, or overweight (for a model of course)?

I also thought of three affluent, up-scale women I know who all thought they became a little heavy, started counting calories and lost 10-35 pounds. Thin is good. Thin is desirable. Thin is beautiful. To lose weight, they weigh everything they eat, look up how many calories are in each food item. Make sure they don’t consume more than a predetermined number of total calories per day. It takes a tremendous amount of discipline. Especially if you love to eat.

Then my friend and I went for dinner at a Chinese restaurant near the dog show in upstate Massachusetts in a town of 40,000. The people were heavy…fat…obese. Even many of the kids. The contrast with the afghans and models was mindblowing. It was incredibly upsetting. As we sat down, I saw two people just starting to eat a pu pu platter for two. They also had a big bowl of fried rice. Hopefully it was the whole meal, and not just the starter. Did you ever eat a pu pu platter? It might include an egg roll, spare ribs, chicken wings, chicken fingers, beef teriyaki, skewered beef, fried wontons, crab rangoon, fried shrimp, among other items, accompanied with a small hibachi grill. Here is what it looks like for two people. Can you believe this is just the appetizer for many hungry eaters?

pu pu platter for two

So two people eat all of this as a warm up. But then I saw a huge man walk by the table. He was like a walrus. On the way I out, I noticed that he was sitting by himself beginning his own pu pu for two…plus the bowl of fried rice. HOW CAN THESE PEOPLE EAT SO MUCH! No wonder there is an overweight/obesity epidemic.

What I couldn’t figure out is why so many people are ok about being fat, when all the ads and movies show thin models, TV commercials promote fitness and thinness, and it appears clearly that thin—or at least not being fat—is a desired body type in American culture. What am I missing?

I will tell you in another post what one marketing expert told me recently.

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Sacrifices For Shoveling

just 2 1/2 days back from Florida heat—10/30/11

lift, toss, don't overdo it

The other day I came back from Florida and watched 18-20 inches of snow crash down in a few hours. A freak storm. The historical record here for October is just 1.7 inches! We lost power for five days. Some people lost it for over a week. Even though I have a generator for part of each day, it’s still a more primitive existence.

Afraid that one of our flat roofs might buckle from the weight, I started shoveling off the heavy, wet snow.

Perhaps every time there is a big snow storm, some one over exerts and has a heart attack. Sometimes they die. Too out of shape, too fat, too macho to take it easy or pay a younger, fitter man to do the job. I thought of how with all this snow, I might be that idiot who drops dead. But I also thought that it was unlikely. I am fit, thin, do cardio on the tennis court. The odds were with me. Though I tired, I kept tossing the increasingly heavy shovels full of snow.

As I made progress clearing the roof, working my way through the tedium, relishing my abilities to heave the weight, I thought of all that I had given up over the years to be able to accomplish this task:

I have not enjoyed thousands of memorable and tasty meals with butter and cream sauce.
I have missed out on a million fabulous desserts with whipped cream, syrups, and icings.
I have passed on years of delicious alcohol drinks, like the sambuca and coffee beans that I was given at the hotel in Florida, and I was sipping every night.
I have pushed myself to exercise, when I didn’t want to.

You pay a price for everything, life is always a compromise, and I guess I made the right decision for me, no matter how much liquor and liqueurs I have not savored over the years…Is it really worth it? To have lived such a deprived life? Not totally, of course. I weaken now and then. There is no Big Brother ready to jail me or chain me when have an occasional pie a la mode. But I am constantly denying myself gustatory pleasures. Almost every day, I say no to some taste treat or spend time on a couch, rather than do push ups. And what’s the benefit? To be able to shovel snow? To not die from that effort?

We all make our choices, pick our paths. Some go to the gym and make muscles. I look in the mirror and wish I had the discipline to do that. Could I if I had to? Of course. But I don’t want to badly enough. I guess I was born to shovel snow sometimes. And think about anything but the boring chore of throwing frozen water drops off the roof…yet somehow, I am proud of this silly achievement.

Two great comments from Michael:

2011/11/14 at 10:41 AM

If you had been the village idiot, the rescue people would have had to go up on your slippery roof to get you down…further reducing your chances of getting to a careplex or decent cardiac unit on snowy, icy roads out in the middle of hooterville where you choose to reside. Perhaps after getting their shoes covered in snow, they would have slipped going down the three flights of stairs with you on a backboard or gurney, and dropped you over the railing…OMG, now look at the paperwork we will have to fill out. Or, in the words of my nephew, tripped over that little white ball of fur (sic…useless white dog) that was barking and biting at their heels encouraging them to hurry up and get the alpha dog out of the house so it could be in charge again.

I think we know (and I have proven) that being fit is no guarantee you will conquer the white stuff building up on your roof. While I have made a few less culinary sacrifices than you, I have for years made more fitness sacrifices. Hours lifting and toning in the gym, triathlons, kayaking, hundreds of abs each week, hiking, walking, spinning, aerobics, etc.

So I don’t worry about a little butter in my food…I never have eaten cream sauce [mom gave us margarine and corn oil, worse than butter by far…who knew].

I don’t eat many desserts, just the occasional piece of pie (once a quarter maybe), and perhaps some ice cream every couple of weeks. {Don’t you dare bring up the first cheesecake I made in almost 30 years, yes I know I ate most of it, how was I to know that no one else in the family liked cheesecake, I couldn’t let it go to waste. It took me two weeks to get through it after all.}

My cardiologist says one or two alcoholic drinks helps clean out my arteries but I choose vodka not a sweet syrupy concoction like sambuca (yes I know my liver is paying a price, but we are discussing heart attacks here. What do you mean how often do I have those one or two drinks?…next question!)

I have not been a big beef or pork eater since the mid 80s when our military served my chow, at least I hope it was beef and pork…(now maybe once a month for each), limiting myself to reasonable portions of chicken, fish or other seafood (shrimp, oysters and scallops on occasion…can’t remember the last lobster…sigh!!)

Lastly, most importantly I believe little or no fried foods, no trans fats at home, fresh vegetables and salads at every meal (no, not breakfast, I don’t eat breakfast except on the weekends, so put your egg yoke back in your repertoire and save it for someone else please). I have never had a rise in cholesterol after eating eggs for breakfast the weekend before. Did I mention I can’t remember my last lobster, I think it was responsible for about a 30 point gain one year…sigh!

So in spite of this reasonably healthy lifestyle (exceedingly healthy compared to most of the world, and certainly most Americans) I wind up with an aortic valve replacement and a double bypass at 55. Would I give up shrimp scampi if someone guaranteed me that I would not have needed to have my chest cut open…certainly. But there are no guarantees like that.

Do what you can, find your balance, check your levels annually and make some choices. If you wind up in ICU with a breathing tube and a whole lot of pain killers in you, you will still not know if it was bad choices or bad genes, all you can do is mitigate the chances of getting there.

Great pictures of you shoveling, a much higher chance that you would end up with a pulled back from twisting than a heart attack anyway. Still would have required a paramedic to get you off the roof on a backboard…I’ll stick with my two egg yokes and hire a 20 something to shovel my roof..like the man said it’s all about the choices.

Michael

2011/11/14 at 10:43 AM

Oh and by the way, the cheesecake was post surgery while I was recovering at home. If I survived open heart surgery, I ought to be able to make it through a piece of cheesecake!

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A Winner’s Thoughts For Winning At Tennis By Joe Marshall

On September 18th, I wrote about the importance of being a “Killer” on the tennis court if I wanted to win more often. But it is proving unimaginably hard to be so “mean.” When I am ahead, I even feel sorry for my opponents, and it sometimes actually costs me the game. Below is Joe Marshall’s wise counsel and comment on that article . You can search above for other Joe Marshall posts that are full of wisdom and good advice about playing tennis after decades of winning experience. Check out his original story here , and don’t hesitate to contact him at joemarshall63@aol.com if you’d like some lessons or advice. He lives in upstate New York, near Western Connecticut.

Tennis will teach you many lessons, Grasshopper. You will doubt yourself. You will doubt your spirit. You will doubt the laws of physics. But persevere. Don’t judge yourself by results. Always remember, you are not invincible, but neither is your partner. Humility is your best friend, because only IT leads to true confidence….(Meditate on THAT mystery, my friend……)

I would bet that each time you got ahead, two things happened. You said to your self, “Don’t blow this.” And your opponent said to himself, “Ok, tighten up, stop experimenting. You know you can beat this guy, so focus.”
And these thought patterns led to his comeback.

Next time, say to your self, “This is fun! There’s nothing like hitting a tennis ball….it feels great!” And then concentrate on hitting your best shot (your forehand) to his weaker side (usually his backhand), as much as you can. And keep those feet moving! Hustle everything down and give him the chance to blow an easy shot. Judge yourself on whether you did those things. If he beats you, tip you hat to him; if you win, don’t get too excited.

Chris Evert was known as the Ice Maiden because of her steely determination and her ability to come up with pressure passing shots in tight situations…..But a lot of it was just technique. Her Dad had told her that in nervous situations, do two things….aim HIGHER, and swing HARDER.

Why did that strategy work? Because in pressure situations, we are inclined at first to be cautious….we slow down our feet, we try not to make mistakes….we go into slow motion…we hesitate……but Chris’s dad’s advice counteracted that….Aiming higher gives us more net clearance…..Swinging Harder give us more consistency, and frees up our tightening muscles….it also gives the opponent a different bounce to deal with.

If you are feeling sorry for your opponent when you get ahead, this is a false pity. It means that you must feel bad when you are trailing, so you assume that he must feel the same way. But it may not be true. So stop feeling bad when you are behind; keep fighting, even if to win only one point. If someone beats you 6-0, thank him for not beating you 6-1. No courtesy games. Just tiny let downs or adjustments can turn the tide at any moment, so, above all, be consistent.

Last idea…….a soft, deep ball is more difficult to hit aggressively than a hard deep ball. Don’t worry if your service returns are soft. Concentrate on getting good net clearance (6 feet or so) on your shots, and hitting the ball deep…..taking the return early robs the opponent of time as well.
I want to have tee shirts made….TENNIS: IT”S NOT ABOUT MERCY!

One last thought….tennis is about healthy competition, which teaches both competitors important lessons about life and health, and cooperation vs competition. Both people come out better for it, and hopefully, better friends.

War is about dehumanization, hate and death……Forgive yourself for being caught up in the war frenzy; after all, you were just an innocent kid. Thank goodness you survived and can play tennis. Peace.

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I Saved A Friend’s Life!

A week ago a dear friend came up to me, made no sound, but mouthed the words, “I can’t breathe.” I immediately realized she was choking and started doing the Heimlich Maneuver. As I squeezed her lower chest from behind like I thought I had seen demonstrated and had practiced some time ago, I groped around for the right spot to pull my fist up on. You are supposed to start on the sternum (above the navel but below the rib cage) and pull up. But I couldn’t find it right away.

I was pretty tense, don’t think I was scared, but remembered that my Uncle Louis had choked to death at his dinner table, when a morsel of food became stuck. I guess it clogged his windpipe. My friend had swallowed one tiny sip of water, I learned later, and it had gone into her windpipe and created a vacuum. I pounded her back many times intermittently as well.

After what seemed like a few minutes, she began coughing and was able to take in some air. We had broken the vacuum. Once she could talk, she said, “You saved my life.” I really wasn’t thinking about that when I was squeezing her chest. I’m not even sure I was aware that her life was in danger. Life and death seemed unconnected to my goal of getting her to breathe some how, anyhow, any way.

Three days after the choking episode, she went to the hospital for an examination and x-rays, and was told that no ribs were cracked, and her heart seemed to be ok. Ten days later, her chest is still sore from all the squeezing.

Life is such a crap shoot, so fragile. A man friend of mine had a stroke, but his girl friend was there to call 911. His brain was deprived of oxygen, and years later has still lost some of its memory functionality. But he is alive. Just like my female friend. Imagine the horror for both these people if no one had been nearby. They would have died.

Here is a link to a description of the Heimlich Maneuver. And here is another link to a discussion about helping a person who is choking. I suggest you learn how to do it correctly and then pray you never have to apply it. Many of the videos and references I looked at said NOT to slap the choking person on the back. The second link encourages back pounding with the heel of your hand. The doctor I spoke with also said one should do the Heimlich a couple of times (4-5 squeezes each time) and then pound the back a number of times.

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When Goals Are Unattainable Fantasies

Last night at a party, I met two women over 60 who were full of enthusiasm and looked as fit as kids in their 20’s. They are so admirable. One plays tennis constantly and swims four times a week. The other does cardio/ellipticals/machines at the gym four days a week, even though she has a full-time job! How do they do it? Squeeze it in to their busy schedules? Not be diverted by all of life’s demands? What I really want to know is why doesn’t it inspire me to be even half that disciplined myself?

I know that role models are helpful. That if so-and-so can do it, then maybe I can too. That’s why sports stars, other celebrities and successes who rose from disadvantaged backgrounds return to the slums or orphanages and preach to youngsters that they can do it too. Have a vision, be determined, stick with it, and maybe you will reach your dream. Rocky climbs the steps at the Philadelphia Museum, and you can hear the same music when you reach your own new height or goal.

But it doesn’t seem to work for me. I can’t make myself get to the gym, do push ups at home, or lift a few weights in my son’s room. Why not?

Clearly I am not lazy—I can hit tennis balls for hours. And I have no trouble being disciplined about my diet, avoiding delicious tastes effortlessly, while others at the table indulge their food passions ecstatically. I am not tempted in the slightest, though I gave in to a half spoonful of homemade fudge on vanilla ice cream the other day that my daughter insisted I sample…while she ate three large scoops swimming in the sauce. Big deal. People laugh at my avoidances all the time.

I hear that people smoke for years, unable to stop, and then suddenly call it quits. I see that people gain weight for years and then unexpectedly decide to lose weight. What happens in their minds to change their behavior so dramatically? How are they able to lose their long-time—perhaps lifetime—addictions?

Something changes. Even when it isn’t life-threatening, like a heart attack or a fall from too much weight. Are you just supposed to wait around until you are so fed up with your bad habits or lack of action that your body has to take a different path? Or until your brain is simply restless for any kind of change? I need to know. But stopping yourself from doing something harmful is very different, it seems, from starting an action like constant exercise. It is so hard for me, feels like such hard work. Don’t you agree? It takes so much effort.

But I believe it shouldn’t be so difficult. Read the rest of this entry »

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